[This first section tells a story about the origins of our morality. The story is just a story, not history or science. The story is not, however, merely fiction. The aim is to embed elements of the essential structure of the story at the beginning of Genesis about the Garden of Eden in an account whose details are mostly drawn from contemporary (non-theological) anthropology. It is still a story or myth, telescoping what a scientific account would spread over hundreds of thousands of years. The story does not mention God, but the fifth section of the chapter suggests that a storyteller who did mention God would provide a satisfying addition from an explanatory point of view. We can see the story as one that an anthropologist might tell her children, or as a Kant-like translation of the biblical story “within the boundaries of mere reason.”]
Once upon a time there lived in Central Africa a group of apes. They were different from the groups of apes who lived around them, and they recognized this difference. For one thing, they seemed to be able to think of themselves as a group, and to think of what helped them as a group and what harmed them as a group. They would regularly meet together, and they sometimes had a kind of experience together when they met that also separated them from the other apes. They had an experience of everything belonging together, not just their own group, but everything. And it all seemed to them good and beautiful. Their assemblies gave them great joy and also a sense of awe, and they came to organize their lives together around them. They were able at these times to forget what kept them apart from each other, and to rejoice in what kept them together. Because of their new kind of unity, they were able to invent new cooperative ways to find food, and find new places to live that could sustain their form of life.
There arose among them a symbol for this goodness and beauty they had discovered, and a symbol of how the enjoyment of it distinguished them from the other apes in the old lands. They found themselves refraining from a particular kind of fruit, and this restraint was connected with their distinctive new form of life. Eating this fruit had been typical of the old way, the way of their ancestors, and they now needed to separate off their new way, connected with their new capacities and their new assemblies. They came to think of the fruit as forbidden by their common life, even though there was no reason (other than the symbolic connection) for refraining.
One day, when food was scarce, the elders of the group saw other animals eating the forbidden fruit, and they felt weariness with the restriction and a desire to go back to the old ways. They decided to eat the fruit themselves. This was a decision different in principle from eating the fruit in the old life, even though it was a decision to eat the same food, because it was now a decision against the authority of the common standard for their lives that they had accepted.
When they had made this decision, they found consequences that were natural but unexpected. One was that they lost the joy in their assemblies together. They also found their sexual lives changed. Before, they had been so conscious of what held them together as a group that they had not needed to protect themselves from each other, though they protected themselves and each other against common enemies. Now, they found themselves hiding from each other or fighting each other. The power of their common life waned, and competition increased for what each controlled individually. That included their food, but also their own bodies. They started to hide their bodies from each other by covering them, and to feel a new emotion of shame when they were uncovered.
Finally, the fighting and the competition between them got so bad that they were not able any longer to trust each other in the way required for the cooperation in finding food that they had discovered in their new place. Without this cooperation their lives there became unsustainable, and they were forced to leave. However, they kept with them the memory of how it had been, and the aspiration to return to it. They became in this way divided, each internally in their hearts, between the desire to protect what belonged to the individual and the desire for the common good that had been shared between them.
Editors’ Note: One necessary condition for doing moral apologetics as Christians is having a clear understanding of the requirements of Christian morality. We are thankful for Dr. Thomas’ piece clarifying for Christians the importance of the objectivity and authority of the biblical teaching on sexual ethics. The recognition of these features of Christian morality are critical both for apologetics and the life of the church, at least as critical as the issues that divided the Christian church in the the time of Martin Luther, as Thomas reminds us in this 500th anniversary year of the Reformation.
By H. O. ‘Tom’ Thomas
Some call it ‘The Great Schism’. At issue are articulus stantis et (vel) cadentis ecclesiae (articles, biblical truths, ‘by which the church stands or falls’). Are there such biblical truths for which you will risk everything, even schism of the church, even your life? I have been reconsidering the Protestant Reformation on its 500th anniversary. On October 31, 1517, Halloween, an unknown monk-pastor-professor Martin Luther posted ninety- five points, ‘The Ninety- Five Theses’, for university debate. It set off a chain reaction of church reform and renewal resulting in the Roman Catholic Church split. Some refer to it as ‘The Great Schism’.
Namely, by 1532 Europe was divided in two: territories and churches which were Protestant; and territories and churches who were Roman Catholic. Both sides were readied for armed warfare. They stood down when the Peace of Augsburg in 1555 allowed each other to exist as Protestant churches and Roman Catholic churches.
‘The Great Schism’ began with a presenting issue: the sale of ‘indulgences’. The presenting issue was serious enough in itself. However, it would not be called an ‘articulus stantis et (vel) cadentis ecclessia’. Over this alone the Church might not have split. Nonetheless, lurking underneath and supporting the practice of selling indulgences were biblical truths upon which the Christian faith stands or falls. These truths constitute Christianity. They could not be compromised! They could not be conceded short of subverting salvation itself.
As I have reflected on the Reformation, fascinating parallels with our own Church situation light up. Acceptance of the practice of homosexuality is the presenting issue today. It’s a serious issue in and of itself. However, some on both sides argue it’s not an article over which to split the church. I submit to you underneath, supporting, and entangled in the argument for allowing the practice of homosexuality are matters involving deep, biblical truths, ‘essentials’, as John Wesley called them, upon which the very essence of the Christian faith depends. Under no circumstances can they be compromised! If they are, the foundation of Christian experience falls. I ask myself, I ask you: Are great truths worth a ‘great schism’!
The presenting issue arousing Martin Luther’s ire was the church’s sale of ‘indulgences’. An ‘indulgence’ was a paper certificate church officials offered parishioners for a fee that granted forgiveness of their sin. Usually after committing a sin a parishioner confessed and did acts of ‘good works’ (penance). These acts merited good credit and paid the penalty for their sin. The good works restored them to favor with God. Buying an ‘indulgence’ itself was considered a good work and qualified as penance which restored one to favor with God. The money from the indulgences went to build St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
‘Indulgences’ were the manifesting issue for Martin Luther. Just the same, the extending roots under the surface were the most foundational biblical truths. They were at the root of biblical Christianity. What is the nature of repentance? How does one gain acceptance with God? How can I be forgiven my sin? What is required of a guilty sinner to be justified by a holy and just God? What is the nature of heart religion and holy living? What is the Word of God? By whose authority am I forgiven? The Church? The Pope? Or Jesus Christ alone?
The acceptance of homosexual practice with marriage and ordination has been the presenting issue in mainline churches. This alone is serious enough. Bound up inextricably with it lurking deeper underneath are the most profound biblical and theological essentials. I can only briefly touch on three/four of the most fundamental.
(1) As it was with indulgences, the question of how can I be acceptable to God is primary. Martin Luther and classic Protestants answered this as the apostle Paul did: ‘He justifies the one who has faith in Jesus’ (Romans 3: 26); ‘we are justified by faith’ (Romans 5:1); ‘for by grace you have been saved through faith’ (Ephesians 2: 8). One repents of one’s sin with a sorrowful conviction for snubbing God and turns away from the sin. One receives by faith, with a confidence in the heart, Jesus the Son of God who by his atoning death pardons the guilt and sin. One is then declared acceptable and righteous before God.
You do not see mainline centrists and progressives making room for a definitive moment of salvation where a guilty sinner crosses from a state of sin and death into a state of saving grace. You will not hear them call persons to repent of their state of revolt from God; you will not hear them call persons to receive saving faith which will make them acceptable and righteous before God; and you will not hear them proclaiming the God-Man Jesus Christ by which faith in His saving blood alone merits our acceptance with God.
No, ‘centrists’ and progressives assume ‘universalism’. “Universalism’ is the belief all persons are elected to salvation. ‘Centrists’ and progressives use Scriptural verses like Hebrews 2: 9 to say Jesus ‘tasted death for everyone.’ In every religious speech for homosexuality advocates say God’s grace extends to all persons. All are included. No one is excluded. Magisterial twentieth century theologian Karl Barth argued saving grace applies to everyone. He declared through the Son the whole of creation is elected to salvation. Everyone is elected. Election is not to shut but to open; not to exclude but to include; not to say ‘no’ but to say ‘yes’. Like indulgences to Martin Luther, homosexuality is to the mainline church today. The offshoot takes us to the root. We are not at the periphery. We are at the heart. Without this, there is no Christianity!
(2) The presenting issue of the acceptance of homosexual practice is inextricably bound up with another essential biblical truth: the sufficiency of Holy Scripture alone for eternal salvation. What is the supreme authority for the way to eternal salvation? Everything necessary for your and my eternal salvation is in Holy Scripture. The Roman Catholic Church held two authorities: Holy Scripture and the Catholic Councils’ decision over the centuries. These great ecumenical Councils’ teaching was deemed as authoritative as Holy Scripture.
The watchword for Martin Luther and the Protestants was sola Scriptura, ‘Scripture alone’. Mainline centrists and progressives say they believe the authority of Scripture. Do they believe Holy Scripture is supreme above all authorities? For them, something outside and in addition to Scripture comes into play. They say Scripture is to be submitted to the judgment of ‘the sum total of human experience.’ Scripture is one authority among other authorities of human experience, emotivist sentiment, and scientific consensus. That means, the Word of God is subjected to an authority higher than itself: human beings. On the contrary, we declare ‘the sum of human experience’ must be submitted to the criterion of Holy Scripture. We reaffirm the slogan of the Reformation, ‘sola Scriptura’, ‘Scripture alone’!
(3) The acceptance of homosexual practice is also bound up inextricably with another foundational issue: does biblical teaching refer to objective realities which exist outside of human thought and experience? In contrast, is biblical teaching relative and dependent on the subjective person who creates it out of his or her mind and experience? This latter view of relativism is the assumption of those in the mainline calling themselves ‘centrist’ and progressive. On the surface, ‘centrists’ argue in God’s church both views (a) homosexuality is blessed by God and (b) homosexuality is forbidden by God belong together in Christ’s church. They assume a God who wills two mutually exclusive things: (a) God wills homosexuality is a pleasing practice in His church (b) God condemns homosexual practice as having no place in His church. The same act is both good and evil. This makes God arbitrary and irrational like the pagan god Zeus.
We Scriptural Christians say homosexuality is sinful. God can do no other than will against it because it is intrinsically contrary to God’s objective nature of goodness and love. God wills what He wills because it agrees with His character and the objective nature of His created order. Present underneath the ‘centrist’ and progressive claim is moral relativism. Moral relativism says ‘no one moral claim is true for everybody’. Morality is different for different people, in different times, and in different places.
This is wrongheaded. This view is in total opposition to Scriptural Christianity. If conceded, the demise of Christian salvation follows. ‘Absolutists’, those who accept morality is true always, everywhere ,and at all times, believe the ‘centrists’ view is false. ‘Centrists’ believe their view to be true. By their own view, ‘centrists’ have to believe our view to be true which says God condemns homosexual practice always, in every place, and for all people. The wrinkle is, by their own view, therefore, ‘centrists’ must believe their own view to be false. If ‘centrists’ are true to their relativist view, they must accept the rejection of their own view. They have to allow that our view is right which says their view is wrong! In making their case for relativism, they undermine and refute their own assumption. They have to allow our view is true which says God wills only one thing: homosexual practice is sin and wrong.
Can we be united with ‘centrists’ and progressives in Christ’s Church? Only if we concede conceptual and moral relativism; only if we allow Holy Scripture must be subjected to a higher authority; only if we give up ‘justification by grace through faith’; and, only if, we are ready to forfeit Christianity. Are great truths worth a ‘great schism’?
Image: By Anton von Werner – https://www.staatsgalerie.de/en/g/collection/digital-collection/einzelansicht/sgs/werk/einzelansicht/0B0D3C944C3810077954978B36F59919.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=62481320
Making Marriage Beautiful stands apart from the many marriage books that flood today’s publishing markets. In its pages, Dorothy Greco draws on her twenty-five plus years of marriage and her wealth of experience in writing and ministry to highlight essential components of a healthy marriage and exhort readers to aspire toward inculcating such a vision in their own relationships. Greco’s book and the principles she offers are motivated and undergirded by her Christian convictions, and reading the book is pure joy. With its lived wisdom and gracious tone, Making Marriage Beautiful is a unique and important resource. And, as our interview below demonstrates, there is plenty of overlap between our concerns here at MoralApologetics.com and the issues Dorothy considers in this volume, most especially questions of the value of persons and God’s provisions for meeting the moral standard.
Marybeth Baggett: Based on what I’ve heard from you and on the book itself, it seems that writing Making Marriage Beautiful is something you felt called to do. On a Christian picture, this idea of calling is connected to the notion of human dignity, that God has created each one of us for a purpose, a specific way in which we image him. Can you talk a little about that in regards to your writing of this book? How do you feel that God prepared you to do this work? I’m especially interested in how he made this charge clear to you.
Dorothy Greco: Much like the story of Joseph, it can often seem that the place of our greatest pain or wounding intersects with our calling. I can see this clearly in my own life.
I believe that every follower of Christ must yield to the call to love their neighbors. Some of us are called to love specific people for a life-time. Neither of these invitations has come easily for me. Due to a challenging childhood, my highly sensitive nature, and some deep relational hurts, by the time I graduated from college, I had the emotional EKG of a cadaver. I mistrusted others and chose independence, rather than healthy interdependence.
I know it’s unusual, but I did not grow up inserting myself into romantic Disneyesque plots or dreaming of being swept off my feet by a knight in shining armor. About seven years after choosing to follow Jesus, I began to detect something stirring in my soul for my now husband. Because I was both guarded and insecure, we had an incredibly tumultuous dating relationship and engagement round one. He eventually broke up with me, and we did not speak to each other for nearly two years. When we finally reconnected, it was obvious that we had both changed.
In round two of our relationship, there’s been no shadow of turning, but we have also had to be intentional and work hard in order to have a solid, fulfilling marriage. We are both strong-willed, stubborn people who seem to have opinions about everything from the bathroom wall color to where the Christmas tree should go. Additionally, life has thrown us some long-term vocational and health challenges. As a result, sparks fly on a regular basis, and we have had to learn how to have productive conflict.
Throughout our 26 years together, we have both felt impressed and emboldened by the Lord to believe that Scripture is true and to step out in that truth. Practically speaking, that means though we’ve had a great deal of conflict, many disappointments, and significant loss, we continue to trust that because God called us to commit our lives to each other, He will empower us to love well.
When I approached my agent about writing a marriage book, she warned me that they are one of the most difficult genres to break into, especially if one does not have a substantial platform. My platform is modest, I am not married to a famous athlete or movie star, and I had no intention of doing anything scandalous in order to sell books. Despite her dire predictions, I strongly believed that God was nudging me to go for it. I felt a divine compulsion to write this book (maybe because I needed it)! After following Jesus for nearly 40 years, I’ve learned to trust the impulses and believe in his provision.
Baggett: Morality may involve rules and law, but as we know, guidelines and prescripts do not exhaust what living a moral life requires. As scripture teaches, love is the animating force behind the law (Matthew 22:40) and its fulfillment (Romans 13:8-10). In writing a book on marriage, did you find it challenging to balance offering particular advice, rules for readers to follow, with exhortations toward love, more holistically understood? If so, how did you address this tension? How do you understand the relationship between following rules and the law of love?
Greco: I really chaff at books with titles such as Forty Days to Transform Your Husband or Ten Steps to a Perfect Marriage. Though we might want it to be, life is not formulaic. We should not assume our relationship with God will be formulaic either. I certainly rely on both the specifics and the abiding principles which undergird certain rules (e.g. the Ten Commandments), but I have not found a rule-based approach to relationships at all helpful. It was not really a struggle for me to approach writing this book in a more nuanced and organic fashion.
I am, first and foremost, a sinner saved by grace. As such, I am always aware of my sinful tendencies whether it’s to curse someone who cuts me off in Boston traffic, or to withhold love as a passive-aggressive retaliation for a minor infraction committed by my husband.
In the case of marriage, it’s quite clear from both the Old and New Testaments that God is about monogamy. The clarity of Jesus’ words on marriage (e.g., Matthew 5:27-32) awaken me to God’s high standards, which exist for my own good, and then simultaneously reorient me toward Him. So if I’m being mature and living in a posture of humility, God’s rules strengthen and empower me to love more like Jesus.
Baggett: A point you made in some of the marketing material you sent along before this interview struck a nerve with me—you said that one of the hardest things you faced writing the book was ensuring that you had the integrity to do so, if any marital struggles you went through somehow undermined your credibility. This resonated with us at Moral Apologetics, since we’re writing about morality and ethics, and some might think that, in doing so, we’re claiming we’ve arrived. Of course we know we have not—as you know that sanctification is an ongoing process. Can you talk a little bit about how you dealt with this doubt while writing your book? Did this self-reflection reveal anything new to you about that process of sanctification? For purposes of this interview, I’m wondering especially how you think God uses marriage in that process.
Greco: It would have been super easy to write a book on having an awesome marriage while mine was less than awesome. (Who would know other than my husband?) The idea for this book actually emerged when we were going through one of the most painful seasons in our lives together. The crisis was not marital, but of course it deeply affected us as individuals and as a couple.
Because we had already been married for 20+ years and had been doing pastoral care for almost that whole time, I could have gone through the motions of being married and simply relied on my experiences to pull this book together. That felt rather disingenuous to say the least. As followers of Christ and leaders, my husband and I have always felt that our offering will be tainted and perhaps even poisonous if we lack integrity. We’ve each benched ourselves from doing ministry at various times along the way, knowing that we were not in a good place and needed to take a break.
I can assure you, I expediently confessed and repented of my sins when I was writing Making Marriage Beautiful. I have enough fear of the Lord and enough knowledge of Scripture to know that how we live matters a great deal to Him.
As I was polling friends about possible titles for this book, one response really struck me. This woman, who is in mid-life and has been married for more than thirty years, wrote, “I have been married a long time and don’t feel the need to learn more. I’m good.” I literally gasped and then started to cry. I immediately prayed, “God, don’t ever let me become complacent. May I always be willing to keep learning and keep growing.”
One of the most significant lesson I learned when writing this book (other than that writing books is so much more difficult than I ever imagined!) is that I have not arrived: I am not a marriage expert and never will be. I’m simply a middle-aged woman who endeavors to love her husband with a fierceness and consistency that allows him to flourish. Though we have experienced glimpses of God’s sublime love breaking into our marriage, learning how to love my spouse is a life-long process.
Baggett: Lately I’ve been meditating on scripture passages that explain fear and love as opposing forces (I John 4:18, for example), and so (in reading your marketing materials) I was especially interested in your description of newly married self as fearful. Can you talk a little about how you opened yourself up to your husband’s love? What risks did that involve, and how did you gain the courage to take that risk? Have you found that love itself, as you grow deeper in it, has given you more moral courage?
Greco: By the time I turned 21, I assumed that people were generally not trustworthy and if I made mistakes, I would be abandoned. That’s a lot of fear—and a lot of pressure to make no mistakes. Early on in our marriage, I attempted to be perfect in an effort to quiet my anxieties. Of course, anyone who goes down that road knows that not only is it impossible, but the pressure to be perfect causes more anxiety.
One of the ways I learned to trust was by incorporating confession as a regular discipline into our marriage. By committing to confess my sins, no matter how small, my facades fell. My husband saw me as the broken, weak woman that I truly am. Miraculously, he kept loving me. One of his greatest gifts to me has been a constant reassurance that he’s not looking for or expecting perfection. He has always been quick and gracious to extend forgiveness to me. Over time, we have accumulated a great deal of relational equity which we draw upon as needed.
And yes, feeling secure in his love and in the Father’s love has definitely allowed me to be more courageous in all aspects of my life. The deeper my identity in Christ and the more confident I am of my husband’s love, the more risks I can take—like writing a vulnerable marriage book! Truth be told, this level of freedom is exhilarating.
Making Marriage Beautiful can be purchased at Amazon.com. There is currently a special running for the Kindle version, selling for $2.99.
In this sermon, Dr. Kinlaw explains what it means to be “consumed by Christ.” Kinlaw offers worthwhile insight into why a person would want to follow Jesus when he demands so much. First, Christ has given all of himself as the Lamb and so he does not ask for something he has not also provided. Second, though his way may seem hard, in the end, it will be the only thing that can truly satisfy the human soul.
As Heltzel observes the contemporary moral sitz em leben he recognizes a need for the abandonment of what he refers to as a “one-sided emphasis on personal ethic to an ethic that is both personal and social.” To this end, he advocates for prophetic ethics that he defines as a moral theory that is committed to action, discipleship, embodiment, mission, justice, and love.
The Source and Shape of Prophetic Ethics
Heltzel claims that the Holy Scriptures in general and Jesus’ teachings/practices in particular, are the primary source of prophetic ethics. The contents of Jesus’ message and the character of his activity encouraged “shalom justice” and proclaimed “the kingdom of God” all in the context of “a Spirit led movement fueled by the fire of revolutionary love.” Stories of Jesus’s dealings with others ought to, according to Heltzel, steer Christians toward empathy for those who are “the least of these” and galvanize disciples toward compelling action in the context of transformational communities.
This requires that Christians know themselves and the context in which they live. If believers are to involve themselves in the justice movement, they must understand where they fit “within the travail and tragedy of human history, which is also the history of redemption.” In so doing, Christians are to take their cue from Christ’s example and act as moral agents who are sensitive to local conditions, events, circumstances, and actions.
Such moral activity is supported by Heltzel’s interpretation of Micah 6:8. Therein, the prophet Micah challenges the people of God to “act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” This verse satisfies what Heltzel believes are the three characteristics of prophetic ethics: faith-rooted organizing (acting justly), empathetic solidarity (loving mercy), and daily prayer (walking humbly with God). While these characteristics describe the praxis of prophetic ethics, Heltzel argues that such practices are rooted in the Hebrew Scripture’s imperative for justice and righteousness. When these two terms (tzadeqah and mishpat) are juxtaposed (see Psalm 33:5 and Jer. 9:23-24 for examples), Heltzel and others like Tim Keller believe that they convey the idea of social justice. As a result, what the Hebrews Scriptures advocate and what Jesus illustrates is a call not just to personal morality, but to appropriate social relations. Taking from Christ’s example, the believer ought to fight for the same in his/her context.
The Application of Prophetic Ethics
Though Love and justice most nearly categorize the moral norms of prophetic ethics, improvisation is its method. “Like a jazz musician improvising on standards,” Heltzel believes that “Jesus improvises on Scripture when he preaches and teaches.” This is most clearly witnessed in his exposition of the Old Testament law in Matthew 5-7. There, Jesus provides his commentary on the law and preaches a revised ethic that offers love and justice to an oppressed and broken people.
In similar ways, contemporary Christians ought to take the themes of love and justice that are articulated in the example of Jesus and improvise on their themes in a way that can speak to the issues that people are confronting. Though the Black Lives Matter movement, death penalty opposition, and Martin Luther King Jr. are cited as examples of how this looks, prophetic ethics is satisfied anytime Christians “empathetically enter the experience of…fellow humans, especially the marginalized who are victims of violence,” and bring love and justice with them. Ultimatley, Heltzel and the prophetic ethic movement is calling Christians to prayerfully shrug off a deleterious preoccupation with personal righteousness and strive for social sanctity.
Virtue Ethics Response
Brad Kallenberg is sympathetic to Heltzer’s assessment of the church as overly individualistic and largely ignorant/avoidant of social involvement. Kallenberg also concurs with Heltzel’s emphasis on ethics as active and performative. However, Kallenberg believes that Heltzel’s system is not prepared to answer why this is the case. Also, using his own musical metaphor, Kallenberg criticizes prophetic ethics for not identifying any unifying/fundamental theme by which the many variations of moral improvisations Heltzel calls for can be rightly understood and applied.
Natural Law Response
Along with the other contributors to the volume, Claire Brown Peterson agrees with prophetic ethics’ call for a just society and prayerful, coordinated, open, and nonviolent campaigns to that end. However, she criticizes prophetic ethics in general and Heltzel in particular on three fronts. First, while advocating for social justice, prophetic ethics does not elucidate how the requirements of justice must reference human nature and flourishing. Second, in its appeal for society, Heltzel largely ignores the necessary private dimensions of ethical consideration. Finally, Heltzel’s iteration of prophetic ethics makes it appear as those collective organization and embodied solidarity are the only appropriate responses to injustices when more choices are, in fact, available.
Divine Command Theory Response
Divine command theorist John Hare widely concedes the crux of what Heltzel has offered inasmuch as prophetic ethics is predominately based on prophetic commands divinely given in the Scriptures. However, Hare wonders if Heltzel does not draw an unnecessary dichotomy between personal purity and concern for others. Also, while Hare appreciates Heltzel’s emphasis on Jesus “prophetic” work, he wishes that prophetic ethics would not dismiss his roles as priest (committed to holiness and sacrifice) and king (exercising stewardship over the created realm). Finally, Hare questions whether or not it is appropriate to describe Jesus’s preaching as improvising on the Scripture and if more work needs to be done to improve this analogy.
I just finished an astoundingly blessed conversation with a dear friend and brother in Christ who is in the midst of a struggle with severe depression. I am aware of the danger of being presumptuous in trying to help someone negotiate depths of horrible feelings that I have not gone through myself, and I can justify it only by believing that in our conversation God was at work spotlighting truths that go beyond either of us—truths that are the bedrock of the relationship that God has with us through Christ. In that spirit of belief, I will honor my friend’s request to put into writing the thoughts that God prompted during our conversation, so that both of us can refer to them later.
My friend (I’ll call him Peter, since the apostle of that name also experienced deep darkness when he realized he had denied his Lord) had already in an e-mail told me that he was having a really hard time, so after a couple of days I felt strongly urged to follow up that communication with a phone call. Peter was more than ready to hear from me and to share more of what he had been experiencing. It turns out that much of his present darkness hinges on unresolved guilt regarding his long-term attempts to care for and help his brother (let’s call him Andy), who, even now, when the two brothers are approaching the end of their two lifetimes, continues to be recalcitrant, angry, and accusatory in response to whatever is done for him. Peter feels he is and has been a failure, and he can’t get out from under the guilt.
He said that a counselor had suggested that he, through an act of will, detach himself enough from the situation to imagine hiring someone to care for his brother, not just physically but to minister to his deeper needs. What would be the job description and statement of expectations? If the worker did everything imaginable to help Andy, and still failed to get the desired results, would he be blameworthy? If not, should Peter hold himself any more responsible than he would hold the worker? We agreed that this is a good technique to use, and that it can help Peter to see his situation more objectively. But the problem—and the answer—goes deeper than that. Battling the darkness of guilt and depression requires embracing the Light, even when you don’t see it.
I reminded Peter of two things: the supremacy of God’s Light over the Devil’s Darkness, and the function of darkness in helping us to see the Light. As to the first, the apostle John, in the first chapter of his Gospel, tells us that through Christ, “The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). The Devil is called the “Accuser of [the] brothers,” who “accuses them night and day before our God” (Rev. 12:10). But even more relevant for us personally is the fact that he accuses each one of us, not merely to bring sin to our attention (the Holy Spirit also does that), but to speak the dark lie that the sin is so bad that we are unforgiven by God. But Satan is not only the Accuser, he is also the embodiment of falsehood, the great Liar. And his most effective agent for falsehood is unresolved guilt. So Peter (both in the Bible and my friend) needed to realize that the darkness of guilt he is experiencing is a direct work of the Adversary, the Father of Lies, the Master Accuser. It is a bedrock truth that in the Light of Christ the Savior, we are forgiven, and the only function of guilt in that realization is to lead us back to the incredible truth that we are forgiven.
That leads to the final point I felt needed to be articulated: It often occurs that one doesn’t realize the overwhelming beauty of the Light until he/she is enveloped in the darkness. I think I can do no better than to reproduce a poem that I wrote years ago. It expresses a truth that goes deeper than my wisdom can take credit for. I like to think that God knew when he gave it to me that it would speak to “Peter’s” predicament.
Shadows lengthen, deepen, merge.
Darkness is all, and I am there.
No thought of shadows when
The sun is full, for then
They merely accent the brightness.
When all is shadow, love may thrive,
Though hope be dim; when all is bright,
Shallow bliss holds sway.
Even the Arctic is both night and day.
Darkness gives more to defining light
Than light to the understanding of dark.
I will see the shadow grow,
And dwell in it even, to know
That light is its own verity,
And darkness but an island in its midst.
–Elton D. Higgs
(Dec. 31, 1974)
Image: “Wintertime is candletime” by Groman123. CC license.
Those of my generation may remember a bygone country song that reflects the old southern custom of making kids wait to eat until the adults were served. In the meantime, they were told to “take an old cold ‘tater and wait.” That bit of social history reminds me that in general we Americans regard waiting as an imposition, a disadvantage to be avoided if possible. Being made to wait is felt (and sometimes intended) as a put-down. An important person often shows his/her superior standing by making other people wait. Going to the head of the line at the airport check-in is a sign of special status, and being able immediately to see a president or other person in authority shows special closeness to that person. A restaurant “waiter” is a person who serves others; and an old sense of “waiting upon” someone (e. g., in Shakespeare) is putting oneself at the disposal of a superior. Rarely is waiting seen as a positive experience.
These thoughts moved me to consider the place of “waiting” in the Bible, where it is presented positively, as a mark of dependence on and submission to God, as in Ps. 25:1-5, 20-21
To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. 2 O my God, in you I trust; let me not be put to shame; let not my enemies exult over me. 3 Indeed, none who wait for you shall be put to shame; they shall be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous. 4 Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. 5 Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all the day long. . . . 20 Oh, guard my soul, and deliver me! Let me not be put to shame, for I take refuge in you. 21 May integrity and uprightness preserve me, for I wait for you.
This passage shows the nature of biblical waiting: those who cry out to the Lord can be assured of His care for them, and that assurance leads to courageous perseverance in times of hardship. As another Psalm says, “I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living! Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!” (Ps. 27:13-14).
Waiting on the Lord is also an antidote to angry despair in the face of unrelenting evil:
Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him; fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way, over the man who carries out evil devices! Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath! Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil. For the evildoers shall be cut off, but those who wait for the Lord shall inherit the land. (Ps. 37:7-9)
In the same vein, when we are treated maliciously and injured, we are not to avenge ourselves, but wait upon the Lord to do vengeance (Prov. 20:22; Rom. 12:17-19).
Failing to wait upon the Lord can have dire consequences. The children of Israel could not wait in faith for only 40 days until Moses came down from Mt. Sinai to give them God’s Law, but in their impatience they made a golden calf to worship (Ex. 32).
Saul was rejected as king of Israel because he disobeyed the order to await Samuel’s return to make a sacrifice before he went into battle (I Sam. 13). Abraham and Sarah grew impatient waiting for the fulfillment of God’s promise to send them a son and brought the servant woman Hagar in to be a surrogate mother for a son and heir, thus bringing Ishmael into the world to set up a permanent rivalry between him and Isaac, the true son of God’s promise who came miraculously when God was ready. In all these instances, we see that failing to wait is coupled with exercising our own wills instead of submitting to God’s will.
But what are the benefits of waiting? In general, one can say that willful and purposeful waiting gives time for God’s purposes to ripen and come to fruition, while dampening our strong inclination to chart and pursue our own way. As the much-quoted proverb says, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make straight your paths” (Prov. 3:5-6). This kind of submission to God brings peace of mind, for it frees one from anxiously worrying about the future, since it is in God’s hands. Moreover, waiting on God is a time of recharging our spiritual batteries. As Isaiah says, “They who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint” (Is. 40:31). It may also be that God is using our waiting to prepare us for tasks and ministries of which we are not yet aware. Remember how Joseph was sold into slavery, and even when he prospered there he was unjustly thrown into prison. But when he was sufficiently matured by his experiences, God brought him forth to be the deliverer of Egypt from coming famine. In the end, he was the instrument for bringing his family to Egypt to become established as the multitude called the Children of Israel and to receive the land promised to the descendants of Abraham and Isaac.
In the Christian dispensation, all of our waiting is wrapped up in anticipating the return of our Lord Jesus to take His people to share His inheritance in the New Heaven and New Earth:
Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace. (I Pet. 3:11-14)
Waiting for God is the incubator of patience, and patience enables us to endure suffering in the faith that God is working even through our hardship to bring about His purposes. The ultimate purpose of God for us is that we “await a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself” (Phil. 3:20-21). When that transformation has taken place, we will wait no more, for time is finished, and past and future will be collapsed into the Eternal Now.
Paul begins 1 Corinthians 15 by pointing to the Resurrection of Jesus as the culminating capstone of the Son’s mission on earth, forming an essential part of the Gospel message (vv. 1-19). He then proceeds to argue that if there is no resurrection from the dead, the consequence is that “in this life only we have hoped in Christ, [and] we are of all people most to be pitied” (v. 19). In the succeeding verses, he goes on to draw a sharp distinction between the resurrected body of Jesus (the Second Adam) and the “natural body” of the First Adam: “For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (vv. 20-21). After an expansion on why “we are of all people most to be pitied” if there is no resurrection, Paul responds to the question, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” (v. 30).
Paul goes to nature for analogies to answer these questions. The resurrected body is as different from the natural body as is the fruit of a grain of wheat from the seed that was sown. He points also to how the kinds of flesh are different from each other, and how heavenly bodies differ in brightness. But the difference between our fleshly bodies and our resurrection bodies is even more striking:
What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first but the natural, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven. (1 Cor 15:42-49, ESV)
What struck me in a fresh way in this passage was Paul’s reference to the first man being “from the earth, a man of dust.” I had always assumed that the “body of death” from which we are finally delivered in the Resurrection is the fallen body destined for physical death because of sin. A corollary of this assumption was that the original, unfallen bodies of Adam and Eve were not temporal, but eternal, so long as they lived in obedience to God. But as I pointed out in Part One, even unfallen mankind was subject to some form of limitation on their physical lives; some kind of development in the context of temporality still remained to be worked out. Paul’s discourse makes clear that Christ’s resurrection from the dead, and the participation of all believers in that resurrection, constitutes the final working out of God’s eternal purpose for His creation. By giving details of the distinction between the body of Adam and the body of our resurrected Lord, which we will one day share with Him, Paul demonstrates also the difference between our present universe, whether fallen or unfallen, and God’s “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (II Pet. 3:13).
The core of my new insight hinges on the implications of Paul’s summation in vv. 50-51: “I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.” It is not just the corrupted, sinful body of the fallen First Adam that cannot inherit the kingdom of God, but even the yet-unfallen flesh and blood with which God clothed him in the first place. If we accept that the original, unfallen Adam and Eve were “flesh and blood,” then it must also be accepted that they were, in some sense, perishable when they were created. We have no way of knowing what would have developed in our world if our first father and mother had not rebelled, but it seems fair to conjecture that some form of cessation to their fleshly form would have been part of the picture.
I ran across a statement in C.S. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet that articulates as a general principle of God’s creation what I believe to be true of Earth and the life God put on it. The major character, Ransom, is talking to a being in the unfallen world of Malacandra (Mars), who has told Ransom about an ancient race that perished from the planet, leaving the area where they once lived cold and lifeless. Ransom asks where the divine Creator and sustainer of the planet was when all this happened. Could He not have prevented this destruction? Ransom’s instructor replies, “I do not know. But a world is not made to last forever, much less a race; that is not Maleldil’s [God’s] way.” I present for your consideration the idea that God’s design in creating the world in which we live was not that it would last forever as it was, even if it had not rebelled; but that it was intended to be the stage for a process by which the Devil would be defeated and God’s moral superiority be established.
The eternal, resurrected bodies we will share with Jesus, as well as the eternal home in which we will dwell with Him, are not merely transformations of our present bodies and our present world, but entirely new, spiritually defined bodies and an abode that transcends completely our material universe. In this eternal state, body and soul and spirit are so bonded together that they are no longer separable nor distinguishable from one another. History, which by definition records change, will be at an end, wrapped up in God’s eternal “now.”
I have long been intrigued by the question of how things would have developed had Adam and Eve not eaten of the forbidden fruit and been banished from Eden. One can exercise some inferential imagination by envisioning a world without the known consequences of sin. Attached to those inferences are some questions: Would Adam and Eve and their descendants have lived forever, absent the penalty of death? Would the innocence of universal nakedness have continued? If so, it’s hard for us fallen people to imagine there being no sexual desire except for one’s mate. God arranged the union between Adam and Eve; how would the monogamous coupling of their descendants have been arranged? Would reproduction be unlimited? With no need to produce food by the sweat of their brows, would human beings have been engaged in other activities, such as creative, artistic, and scientific pursuits?
These questions may seem to be idle speculation, but I think they lead into matters of some significance. All of the questions I have posed above are based on the assumption that there existed in the pristine world of Eden an expectation of purposeful and orderly development over a period of time. God Himself looks in this direction when He tells the newly-created man and woman, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over . . . every living thing that moves on the earth” (Gen. 1:28). Things in the original creation were expected to change in ways designed by God to fulfill His nascent purposes for this new world of His. Since any kind of change requires the observed passage of time, it seems legitimate to infer that there was a kind of positive temporality in the prelapsarian world that in the postlapsarian world became a degenerative penalty.
Perhaps the best way of getting some sense of God’s original plan for Edenic fulfillment is to consider the implications of the two trees placed in the Garden, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life (Gen. 2:9). We find out after Adam and Eve have eaten from the forbidden tree that God took precautions against their also eating from the Tree of Life.
Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—” 23 therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. 24 He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life. (Gen 3:22-24)
To me, this passage implies that, had Adam and Eve not disobeyed God, there might have been a time for them to partake of both trees under God’s direction. It seems not unreasonable to conjecture that the Lord wanted unfallen mankind, under His timing and direction, to become aware of the presence of evil in the universe so that He could equip them to partner with Him in the final defeat of that evil, and thereby be ready in the full maturity of their existence to eat of the Tree of Life.
At any rate, I think that God created the physical world as a kind of theater in which to do battle with the Devil. We have some biblical hints of a battle in Heaven between God and his angels and Satan and his cohorts, in which God by His superior power cast a rebellious Satan down from his exalted position in Heaven (see Ezek. 28:11-19; Rev. 13:7-12). The most familiar literary rendition of this battle is of course in Books V and VI of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Although his narrative of the epic battle in Heaven exercises the privilege of poetic imagination, it nevertheless presents a drama that may very well have taken place in some form before the creation of Eden. This was a victory of God’s power, but it remained to provide a setting in which Satan could be confronted with the moral superiority of God, which could take place only in an arena where God’s love could be triumphant over Satan’s hate. Exactly how that would have worked out if the Creation had not been corrupted by human sin, we don’t know, of course; but it’s hard to imagine how it could have had more dramatic or emotional impact than God’s “backup plan,” in which He participated in the suffering of the sinful world, even becoming a mortal human being and dying in order to redeem the fallen world.
This little essay (Part One) represents a refinement of ideas I have held in rough form for some time. My central point here is that God’s created world, both before and after the Fall, is in marked contrast to His eternal being, which has no beginning and no end and is perpetually and always the same, yesterday, today, and all possible tomorrows. As God’s inherent nature is immutable, so is the place where we will dwell with Him in resurrected form for eternity (see the description of the New Jerusalem in Rev. 21-22). “Heaven” is where all divine purposes have been realized, and there is no longer the need for change toward an objective. The catalyst for this refinement of my ideas on original and fallen creation was a rereading of Paul’s discourse on the Resurrection in I Cor. 15, in which he details the radical contrast between the temporal bodies of the first humans and the eternal bodies that we will share with the resurrected Christ. Part Two is an analysis of this passage, with application of the principles Paul enunciates to the larger matter of the radical difference between the temporal earth and our eternal dwelling place with God.
Image: By William Blake – William Blake Archive, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7735228